Women come a long way from the « What are you doing here? What are women doing at the court?” type of comments common three years ago. But Diana Hamade, an Emirati lawyer and owner of her own cabinet in Dubai, explains how Arab women have a bigger challenge, much more at stake and how what is happening in the region comes as an additional concern. INTERVIEW.
How many women are working at Dubai Courts, lawyers and judges?
I am not aware precisely of the number of women lawyers registered with the Ministry of Justice or the Dubai rulers Court. But what I can say is that on daily basis I meet at Dubai Courts around 40 women out of 100 lawyers. The number of women judges at Dubai courts is five. One of them is an Appeal Court judge.
Is it a very new trend?
Yes, it only happened three years ago. The first judge ever was from Al Ain, appointed at Al Ain court.
So things are evolving in the judicial system ?
A lot. It is very interesting. My daughter wants to study law but she is primarily thinking of practicing in the DIFC courts because she prefers to study English Law for instance. Now we have Civil Law Courts based on and in line with the French Legal system, DIFC courts which are English Courts in addition to alternative dispute resolution systems and domains such as Arbitration, adjudication and mediation.
How do you get to choose one from the other?
Unfortunately, for us it is difficult to be in two courts. I may not want to appear before the DIFC courts although I am a practitioner there, as I am not yet practiced in the English courts. Being a lawyer with right of Audience before all UAE courts including DIFC Courts would not automatically render one as a practitioner in all courts. I can see that many of the new coming lawyers may prefer the English courts to the Arabic speaking UAE courts especially after the extension of jurisdiction the DIFC Courts obtained, but we still got to wait and see.
You are leaving tonight for the Arab Women in the Global Economy Conference in London. Are you very active on advocating women’s rights?
I started writing for The National four years ago. I was a columnist for almost three years and I published articles in a number of publications, on legal matters. I spoke about human rights, women’s rights. I always spoke about women somehow. I am invited from time to time to women’s forums in the Arab world to speak about promoting women’s rights and opportunities to be raised in certain practices; the latest thereof was on promoting women to become board members. There is a lot of movement to push the women further to leadership positions. The conference I am going to now is about Arab women integrating into the global economy. There are very little of them in the financial services for instance. They have the money so they are the clients but what about them taking part in restructuring the financial services and designing them to suit women better. Women have their special needs and they have to be included in the organizational structure to assist women efficiently. I spoke about Arab women on boards in family owned businesses and now I will be talking about women in the financial services sector.
Why are they still not integrated?
The problems in our countries are many. Starting from the home ending at the work place with everybody involved. The media takes on a huge responsibility, the regulator, the government etc…
The Financial industry is still a male dominated sector. As a lawyer, almost four years ago I wrote an article about women lawyers in the UAE which was then my first. The piece was published in a special book on the UAE. I swear back then the men were asking women « What are you doing here? What are women doing at the court?”.
What made them change their attitude?
The growing numbers of women in the legal domain and the way women have proven themselves being lawyers in this country. Now they are having their own cabinets. The first two lawyers in the UAE are still around until now and it was the two of them only until 10 years ago when women started entering the legal practice.
What about the clients?
I can say from experience that certain clients prefer women. They come to me because I am a woman.
They think men are not focused like us, multifunctional like us. They think that men can be distracted from their work. We are very responsible, we deliver on time, and we are very committed. You know what I am talking about.
And only women know how hard they had to work to get there?
For women it is a continuous challenge. Every day it is a day to make it or break it. To prove yourself and deal with all the difficulties, worldwide but Arab women have a bigger challenge and much more at stake.
But what is the difference for Arab women? Is it religion? Tradition?
First of all, think about tradition. How many families don’t want their daughters to work? They try to keep them out of work. They tell them they should not work, that they don’t need to. This is the biggest challenge for a lot of girls.
Is it still the case?
To a certain extent there are still conservative families everywhere in every country. It is against their customs, their traditions; women should not be allowed to travel on their own. It limits your ability to do a lot of things, join certain sectors of business. Then there is the acceptance of your male counterparts in the work place. They either take you in or make your life hell. In many sectors men still do not accept women.
Did you experience it yourself?
Men in the judicial system are not very used to women in the Arab world. Women are still rare or at least hardly found. When I started appearing at the courts, the judges would question my sources, abilities, skills, etc… but after some time and when I proved that my legal skills and knowledge were satisfactory and up to their expectations things changed dramatically.. Men lawyers did not like it in the beginning either. They did not hire women in their cabinet, tried to keep them away. But then they had to face the reality.
Aren’t the social constraints much stronger then the religious ones on women in Arab countries?
True. Religion can be interpreted in a more flexible way. There are people who can make it easier for us. Look at the UAE, we all wear what we want, we can practice every job, just like Western countries. The leadership of the country is allowing the religion to be flexible in favor of women. Those who don’t see women good enough claim Islam prevents women from working but it is mainly social issues that are a restraint to women. Religion does not say that we can’t work. Religion does not say that we can’t travel. It is mainly the social set of mind of men.
What can change that? Time?
Yes indeed time. What should be done is simple and clear; engage society movements and integration of civil society to push women agendas further. Because women’s agendas are just kept in the shadow, nobody wants to see them, keep their eyes closed on them. Civil society has a big role. And civil societies are not developed in the Arab world. So women just have to jump to try to get where they want.
And develop more and more role models?
It would be great if we can set such role models for the coming generations.
Do you see yourself as a role model?
I am proud to say that a lot of young girls look up to me and say they would love to become what I am. My wish is to be really what they think I am! I am short on things. I wish I can do better. But so far I am happy that some girls want to study law because they saw what I am doing, they read my articles; believe that we can make a difference. It’s amazing.
Are you part of any women’s organizations?
Unfortunately I don’t have time with my work and three children. But I never say « no » to any opportunity to help, to do communal work and I take initiatives on my own to help many establishments. But I can’t keep up with them.
But you attend talks and conferences?
Yes I always try to do something which I believe will hopefully make a difference. I joined the International Bar Association as a speaker on women in Islam and intersection between civil law and sharia law in the last two years. The first session was held in Dubai. The second time, I was with the women’s rights group with all the women lawyers from all over the word. We gathered and spoke about issues. I spoke about Muslim women and how Islam is a promoter not a preventer. It was a paper which was very highly regarded.
What was the answer to that question?
Islam is misinterpreted in a very sad way. The way the Quran is interpreted takes away a lot of its virtues. It’s a religion for the betterment of the world. I don’t think Islam wants women left behind. It’s the interpretation. The sayings of the Prophet were so unfairly interpreted vis à vis women. All around the world, do you see one woman scholar? A female pope? This is all around the world. Men stay right in the way. There are so many verses in the Quran you can read in four different ways. That is why of course we have sects and scholarly views, but again if you choose to read them in a way that prevents us you are able to do that. Arab and Muslim women are the poorest in the world and the ones who are paying the dearest prices for injustice. Look at Pakistan, there are still honor crimes until now. This is just because they chose a verse, they keep just two words regardless of the beginning and the end of the verse and they say that a woman should be slaughtered. Who said that? It’s the word of a man.
I am impressed by your freedom of speech. You can talk freely ?
Where and when? Now with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, I can only wonder who can talk anymore. All the rights the women had gained in Tunisia for instance are all disappearing and vanishing … In the last five years with the Arab spring, we just moved back. It is a pity and it is worrying. But for the UAE, from day one the country has put itself as a global city. Look at everyone. I have friends form Japan, France, Germany, and Australia. Where else do you have people walking from so many different countries in the same neighborhood and attending the same schools? We are indeed global citizens living in a global city.
Do you think the UAE could serve as an example for the region, for the Arab world?
That’s what we were looking forward to but it doesn’t look like it. It seems that around us things are turning differently.
Are you afraid for the future?
Oh yes. Not for people my age but our kids. I would like our kids to go away, but where?
Regarding the laws, what can be improved for women?
First of all, the inheritance in the sharia law. Women should be treated fairly. If in any way they are prejudiced or harmed the regulators can fix things and interfere for the good of women. Certain laws based on Sharia should not be applicable to non Muslim living in the UAE, such as the inheritance law. Who will change that is a good question. Until now nothing has changed.
Women don’t have the same rights as men. You talked about inheritance, what else?
A Muslim woman cannot divorce her husband. She is not allowed to, unless she has very good reasons. But he can divorce her overnight. They have to fight and in most cases it will take a year to a year and a half.
What do answer to people in Europe who say « well this is all very good, but if you where so free why don’t you stop covering yourself then and then you’ll really be en accord with yourself?»
It is part of uprising. People used to see their mothers with their scarfs. They wear it with amazing designs. Mainly it is something embeded in Arab women’S aesthetics This is the way you should look like.
Of course we are talking about Dubai and no other Arab countries?
Yes. Not all. I know in France people hate to see women covering their faces, wearing Niqab. I don’t like it either. I think they do it just to make a statement. For us here it is nothing. Everybody wears abaya, it is cute.
In the Cabinet, there are 4 women out of 30 Ministers. Is it a good number?
It is a good number. It is almost the same ratio compared to the West. As for the Federal National Council (FNC), which is more or less like a Parliament -it has an advisory role-, there are women as well. We are happy because at least there are there to defend women issues, to review laws, to give comments, to ask for laws which are not already made. Even if the FNC has a marginal role at least there are women there.
What would you wish for women here in the next 20 years?
In the UAE, I honestly think the next step is the sky.
The sky ! You know, your limit here is the sky. Nothing has stopped a woman from doing whatever she wants to do. Everywhere there are men, women are being accepted. It wasn’t the case 20 years ago at all. Now you can see them everywhere in the government, in business, medicine, engineering, on boards- which is amazing. Now there are still social boundaries. I think that in 20 years we will see much less of them.
What about the region?
What’s happened in Egypt has given us a very sour feeling. Tunisia was the most amazing country with the most incredible achievements. They stopped the four wives. They had an inheritance law giving the same rights to women. They had a law just like in western countries. The Arab world seems to be doomed. But we are going on hoping that things will somehow change dramatically to become great and ultimately perfect.
Diana Hamade Al Ghurair, a UAE lawyer and legal consultant specialized in civil and commercial law with a focus on Shariah related matters where separation, custody and inheritance are primarily concerned. Diana obtained here Law degree from the UAE, Al Ain University in Sharia & Law. Then she went to Aberdeen University in Scotland where she got her LLM in International Commercial law.
Diana was born in the UAE from Lebanese parents (mother Palestinian Lebanese). Her father was one of the first practicing lawyers of this country. He contributed to the law making in the UAE and authored a number of established opinions.
He passed away 15 years ago but Diana started practicing law only five years ago as she was employed by Dubai government at the Chamber of Commerce and the DIFC in legal advising capacities. Her cabinet now is a boutique law firm, called the International advocate Legal services.